“Rosmersholm” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you, it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself. 

All quoted passages from “Rosmersholm” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

 

Rosmersholm was not the title Ibsen initially had in mind. He had considered calling it White Horses, referring to a recurrent image in the play of the mythical white horses that are said to be seen on the Rosmer estate before disaster strikes, but he eventually decided against it, possibly to avoid giving this admittedly striking piece of imagery too central a prominence in the work. Ghosts would have been a good title  as well – or, rather, the more evocative  Norwegian  title, Gengangere “something that or someone who walks again” – but that title had already been used in a previous play. Central to this play too is the burden of the past, the past that will not let us be, even when we have left it behind, even when we have outgrown it.

Ibsen eventually titled the play Rosmersholm – the House of Rosmer. For the great House of Rosmer, with its immense history, with the traditions and values it continues to represent (irrespective of Rosmer’s  own apostasy), plays in this drama a central  role. It is an austere, and gloomy house: there is not much room  here for human feelings. As Mrs Helseth, the old housekeeper of the House of Rosmer tells Rebecca:

Little children don’t cry in this house, not as long as anyone can remember … But it’s part of the  Rosmers. And  there’s another strange thing. When they grow up, they never laugh. Never laugh until the day they die.

Tears and laughter, those feelings and emotions that seem almost to represent what it means to be alive, to be human, have no part in the bleak House of Rosmer. But it is nonetheless a noble house. Rebecca West, who had initially entered the house as an outsider, can testify to its ability to ennoble:

REBECCA: It’s the Rosmer view of life – or yours, anyway. It has infected my will.

ROSMER: Infected – ?

REBECCA: And poisoned it. Enslaved it to a law which I had not previously recognised. You – being with you – has ennobled my soul –

ROSMER: Oh, if only I could believe that!

REBECCA: You can believe it all right. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. But – (Shakes her head) – but – but –

ROSMER: But – ? Well?

REBECCA: But it kills happiness, John.

Presumably translator Michael Meyer has translated whatever was in the original text as “happiness” rather than joy so as to avoid unwanted echoes of the English word “killjoy”, but this theme of the destruction of joy,  or of happiness, has appeared before: in Ghosts, the destruction of livsglad, a compound word meaning Joy in Life, is a major theme. Osvald speaks of it often, and his father, the deceased Captain Alving, was possessed with this livsglad. But, as his widow, Mrs Alving, who has no reason to feel sympathetic towards her dead husband, acknowledges, this livsglad had been killed in him. She had not shared in this Joy: her insistence had been merely on a cold, loveless sense of duty. Her husband had no outlet for this Joy, and over time, this Joy had become corrupted merely into empty hedonism. In that same play, Pastor Manders had asked:

What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam!

( from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik)

Osvald too, returning home from Paris, comments that he never sensed back home that Joy he had found elsewhere. The cold insistence on moral duty had killed it all. And here too, in the House of Rosmer, Joy has been killed. But we are given a further twist: what has killed Joy is not a cold and  loveless sense of duty: rather,  it is something that even Rebecca West admits is ennobling. But whatever it is, no matter how ennobling it is, it kills happiness.

The concept of nobility is explicitly placed here as something that is the opposite of happiness. Earlier in the play, John Rosmer had spoken of “ennobling” the people, although what precisely he had meant by this, and how precisely he is to achieve this, he does not say. Brand, too, had sought to ennoble humanity: he had enjoined humanity to take the Truth into their hearts, and to sacrifice all, their own selves if necessary, in  pursuit of this Truth, without even thinking of earthly happiness. And Pastor Manders in Ghosts, though a very different person from Brand in every way imaginable, was also a man of God, and he too had insisted that people do their duty, regardless of human happiness; for mortals, he insisted, had no right to expect “happiness”. This insistence of Truth, this desire to “ennoble” humanity, we had seen also in Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, and in Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck, but, unlike Brand or Pastor Manders, neither Stockmann nor Werle are religious: they do not even mention God. Brand and Pastor Manders had insisted that humans ennoble themselves by doing their duty, because this is God’s will; but Stockmann and Werle pursue Truth for its own sake. When the people turn against Stockmann, he could have argued against them in purely empirical terms: he could have denounced them for short-sightedness, for failing to see that seeing to their immediate welfare is to bring upon themselves far greater problems in the longer run. But he does not make that argument: he turns against the people because they do not have any sort of commitment to the Truth. And Gregers Werle too believes in Truth for its own sake; he believes that humans already are essentially noble, and that they must accept the Truth for its own sake because that, and that alone, could make such noble creatures happy. He believes this because he has to believe this: if it were not true, then, as he says at the end, life itself wouldn’t be worth living. Stockmann and Werle may not be religious – at least, neither mentions God – but their morality is not really too far from Brand’s: for them, Truth must be pursued, though not necessarily because God wills it (as Brand had believed) – but rather,  for its own sake.

When Rosmersholm was written (it was published in 1886), the intellectual temperature was changing. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, religious belief was no longer a default position. That is not to say that religious belief was not possible, but, rather, it could not be taken as a given: whatever grounds there may be still to believe, belief was no longer something that was dictated by reason. Only four years before the publication of Rosmersholm, Nietzsche had famously declared (in The Gay Science) that “God was dead”. And in this state, one could no longer justify anything, not even life, by invoking an overriding divine purpose. Whatever values we choose to live by, whatever we choose to pursue, we cannot ascribe to any divine purpose, since the existence of God himself was no longer a given. So what, then, forms nobility? How then do we ennoble humanity, ennoble ourselves?

John Rosmer is, very explicitly, a man who had once believed, who had once, indeed, been a Man of God, a pastor, but who has now lost his faith. He is the last in the line of the House of Rosmer, and the immense burden of the past weighs heavily on him. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. Rosmer himself may have lost his faith in God, but retains still his faith in that which ennobles: duty, integrity – the  Truth. As with Stockmann and Werle, he believes in Truth for its own sake, and he believes, as Brand had done, that humans can be ennobled if they could but grasp the Truth, and hold it dear. But unlike Brand, he cannot justify Truth with an overriding divine purpose: he no longer believes. It is merely an abstract concept, existing for its own sake. But he is nonetheless a Rosmer, of the House of Rosmer, and though he has rejected religion, he cannot reject the concept of Truth as something that ennobles.

But when it comes to human happiness, Truth is neutral: Truth may “ennoble” – whatever we may mean by that – but it does not care one way or the other for human happiness. We may still hold on to it as a concept, and value it for what it is, but it is possible that what we value is no more than a ghost of the past, one of those Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”. For if there is no divine will we may appeal to, if there is no God himself, then it is hard to see what there can be more valuable than human happiness here on earth; and if Truth itself is indifferent to the very concept of human happiness, why then why should we value it?

Now, Ibsen is not saying that we shouldn’t value Truth: Dr Relling, in The Wild Duck, says this, but Dr Relling is not Ibsen. Ibsen does, however, pose some very uncomfortable questions. If we no longer believe, if we can no longer appeal to an overriding divine purpose or to an overriding divine will, then we can take nothing for granted; then we must create our own values, and they must be human values, justified in human terms. Possibly this is what Ivan Karamazov meant when he spoke those enigmatic words “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted”. This does not necessarily mean that the non-existence of God obviates moral values, although that is certainly a possible interpretation: more interestingly, it can mean that if God does not exist, we have nothing to guide us in creating our own values, and that we must, therefore, start from scratch. And if we do, we must question everything, even the value of Truth itself. If there can be no aim greater than that of earthly human welfare, and if Truth is indifferent to such an end, why then should we value Truth? Is it merely an emotional attachment on our part and nothing more? And here, when Rebecca West presents the Rosmer view of life as something that ennobles, but also as something that is opposed to human happiness, a deeply uncomfortable question seems to me implicit: what price nobility, what price Truth, if it makes us unhappy?

On top of this questioning of the value of Truth, in Rosmersholm, the very nature of Truth itself is questioned. Not whether there exists such a thing as objective Truth, but whether we are capable, even with the best of wills, of grasping what it is.

Such are the psychological complexities in which the principal characters of this drama are bound, the mind reels. Rebecca West and John Rosmer try to understand their past, try to understand what it has made of them, but little seems clear, and their behaviour, conditioned as it is by their psychological states, seems at times perverse. Ibsen here delves further into the inner complexities of the human mind than he had done in any of his earlier plays. Only four years earlier, in An Enemy of the People, he had presented a very public drama, with very public conflicts; in The Wild Duck, which followed, he moved towards the private sphere, presenting the depths of the mind, of the imagination, as the depth of the sea itself. Now, he moves further into the close intricacies of the human mind. Of course, there is a public life as well: the drama depicted here is very firmly set in the real world, and there is, we gather, much public conflict outside; but this conflict is, essentially, presented as noises off. We see a representative of the conservative camp – the overbearing and bullying Kroll; and we see a representative of the liberal camp, the sly and manipulative Mortensgaard, neither caring for the  Truth, and neither bearing any mark of nobility. But the action of the play never leaves the House of Rosmer, and the focus is turned inward.

Sigmund Freud, famously, wrote at length on the character of Rebecca West in his 1914 essay “Character Types”. (The essay is quoted at length by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation, and Meyer refers to it as “by far the most penetrating analysis of the play”.) Among other things, Freud probes the question of why, precisely, Rebecca West refuses Rosmer’s proposal of marriage towards the end of Act Two. This, after all, is what she had been working towards; why, when it is within her grasp, does she turn away from it so fiercely? Whatever we may think of Freud’s answer to this question, it cannot be denied that it is a fundamental question to ask. Ibsen has placed it at exactly the half-way point of the play; the refusal, though obscure in terms of “why?”, is tremendously powerful and dramatic, and it brings down the curtain on the second act with the utmost force. Freud’s view was that Rebecca West was haunted by her fear of incest. As a younger woman, after her mother had died, she had become the mistress of step-father, Dr West. However, Dr West had most likely been, in reality, her biological father also: Rebecca’s mother had been his lover while her husband had still been alive. And when Rebecca later enters the Rosmer household, she comes into a parallel situation: she ends up displacing John Rosmer’s wife, Beata, to win John, in the same way that she had previously displaced her mother to win Dr West. But the guilt she feels for her previous incestuous relationship Dr West prevents her from taking the final step of this act of displacement.

This may or may not be so: I am no expert of Freudian psychology. It may be argued that when Rebecca refuses Rosmer, she does not know that Dr West was her biological father: she had no idea that Dr West and her mother had previously been lovers. However, against this, it may be argued that she may, at least, have had suspicions; and that, afterwards, Dr West had certainly been her step-father, and, hence, a father figure, if not necessarily a biological father. All this may be so. It is certainly true that the situation Rebecca found herself in on entering Rosmersholm parallels the situation she had been in before. But there does seem to me a much simpler explanation: Rebecca feels guilt not because of incest, but because of Beata, the wife of John Rosmer, and the part she had played in Beata’s death.

As a liberated woman, Rebecca had not, at first, cared much about the niceties of convention, about the sanctity of marriage; but over time, as she says herself, the “Rosmer view of life” had “infected” her will. The words she uses here are significant: infected, poisoned, enslaved. She expresses exclusively in negative terms that which, by her own admission, had ennobled her. The nobility that is so defining a feature of the House of Rosmer had made her ill, had taken away her very freedom: no longer was she the liberated person she once had been. But it had ennobled. It had allowed her to see clearly her own guilt. For, even when we reject religion, reject God, the consciousness of our guilt, and the awareness of our sinfulness, are less easy to throw off: these are Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”.

But what really did happen with Beata? The truth is difficult even to uncover, let alone embrace. To what extent is Rebecca responsible for Beata’s suicide, for Beata’s throwing herself into the millrace? Rebecca herself is not entirely sure. But the dead continue to live with us: in performance, we hear throughout the sound of the millrace from outside the house. Beata herself may be dead, but she remains throughout a powerful presence. And it strikes me as likely that it is Beata’s unseen presence, and Rebecca’s growing awareness of her own guilt and her willingness to accept moral responsibility, that is behind Rebecca’s refusal. At the very end of the play, Mrs Helseth sees John Rosmer and Rebecca West follow Beata, and throw themselves into the millrace – a sentence they pass upon themselves in  the absence of a God they can no longer believe in – and she says: “The dead mistress has taken them”. Amongst other things, Rosmersholm may be seen, I think, as a Gothic ghost story: the ghost of Beata is rarely too far away.

But what really had happened between John Rosmer, Beata Rosmer, and Rebecca West? One thing we can definitely rule out is that Rosmer and Rebecca had been having an affair. They both make quite clear, even when alone together, that their relationship had been entirely chaste. Indeed, John Rosmer appears throughout a sort of sexless being, or, at least, as an asexual being. That he can be living under the same roof as the young and attractive Rebecca, and never even be tempted by desire, seems to indicate a man with a very low, virtually non-existent, sexual drive. (Neither is there any indication, incidentally, of homosexuality on Rosmer’s part, latent or otherwise.)  Perhaps this is in keeping with the cold, passionless ethos of the House of Rosmer, where children do not cry and adults do not laugh. If this is so, we may ask ourselves what had attracted Rebecca to Rosmer in  the first place, and here, I must confess that I am not at all sure: the fact that Rosmer was a man from a noble family (on all senses of  the word noble), and belonging to an old and respected family, and owner of the great Rosmersholm, the House of Rosmer, may in itself had been a sort of aphrodisiac. But more important, I think, is that Rosmer is a genuinely good man. He is, as Edmund says of Edgar in King Lear, a man “whose nature is so far from doing harms, that he suspects none”: he cannot see how pompous and malicious Kroll is, or how untrustworthy and conniving Mortensgaard is; and it never even occurs to him that living under the same roof as Rebecca West may give rise to gossip. He has rejected his faith, but his moral integrity, his determination to do right, to value Truth, are important aspects of his character: these, after all, are the values of Rosmersholm iitself. Rebecca herself would possibly be at a loss to explain what it was that had attracted her to Rosmer, but the fact that he was in all respects a good man is, I think, far from a minor consideration.

And then, there is the question of John’s marriage with Beata: what exactly had that been like? We can only piece it together from the very unreliable memories the participants of this drama have about her. He are given to understand that she had been mentally ill, especially towards the end: it seems likely she had been suffering from what we would now call depression. And that the depression had been brought on by, or, perhaps, exacerbated by, the knowledge that she couldn’t have children – although whether this was due to her own medical condition or to her husband’s lack of sexual interest in her remains unclear. At any rate, she had been a deeply unhappy person, imbued with a profound sense of her own inadequacy, and  her unworthiness to be the wife of John  Rosmer. And Rebecca had played upon this. She had given Beata to understand that she and Rosmer were indeed lovers, and that it was she, Rebecca, and not Beata, who should rightfully be Rosmer’s wife. Not that she had done this openly, or even deliberately: it was not something calculated, and, as she looks back, she cannot quite understand to what extent she really had been  responsible:

REBECCA (vehemently): But do you think I did all  this calculatedly, and in cold blood? No – I was different then from what I am now – standing here and talking about it. And besides – I think a person can have two wills. I wanted to be rid of Beata. Somehow or other. But I never thought it would happen. Every step that I ventured forward, I felt as though a voice cried within me: “No further! Not an inch further!” But I couldn’t stop! I had to venture another inch. Just one. And then another – just one more. And then it happened. That’s how such things do happen.

And, as Rosmer realises, if Rebecca is guilty, he is guilty too. At two strategic points in the play, in the first and final acts, the reprehensible old layabout, Ulrik Brendel, enters the scene. He had previously been John Rosmer’s tutor, and  Rosmer possibly realises that this faded old idealist, now taking refuge in bluster and in alcohol, is a sort of grotesque mirror image of himself. He too, like Rosmer, had set out to “ennoble” humanity; but whatever nobility he himself once may have had has long since disappeared. And he knows it. How can he, pathetic and absurd as he is, have anything to offer?

BRENDEL: Faewell,  Johannes! Forward to victory!

ROSMER: Are you going now? It’s a dark night.

BRENDEL: Night and darkness are best. Peace be with you. [He leaves]

                [There is a moment’s silence in the room.]

REBECCA (takes a deep breath): Oh, how close and suffocating it is here!

Rebecca and John can both seen Brendel an image of John Rosmer himself, and idealist who, being honest, must face up to what he really is, to the guilt in which he is embroiled. He can no longer believe in a God to punish him, but he still believes in sin and in atonement: he must punish himself.  Night and darkness are best, after all.

I, who was to carry my cause to victory – ! And now I have fled the field, before the battle has even begun.

And as for Rebecca, she is suffocating. The only way out for both of them is to go the way Beata had done.

But it is not the case – as I have seen in some analyses of this play –  that John Rosmer decides to atone for his guilt by committing suicide, and Rebecca decides to join him. It is, if anything, the other way round. It is John Rosmer, with the monstrous egotism typical of idealists who expects others to share their ideals, who asks whether Rebecca will have the courage:

ROSMER: Have you the courage – and the will – with a glad heart, as Ulrik Brendel said – for my sake,  now, tonight – freely and willingly – to go the  way that Beata went? … Yes, Rebecca. This is the question I shall never be able to escape from – after you are gone. Every hour of the day it will haunt me.

Rosmer means that this question will haunt him after Rebecca has left Rosmersholm: would she, who is guilty of so much for his sake, and in whose guilt he bears a great part, prove to him the depths not only of her love, but also of her awareness of her guilt? It is a monstrously egotistical thing to ask for. But Rebecca agrees. And only then does Rosmer decide to accompany her.

For now, we two are one.

And there follows the double suicide, the ultimate union in death, the liebestod – but a liebestod entirely chaste, and free of sexuality. The liberated woman who had sought to subdue the world itself to her will, but whose will now has dissipated; and the man of integrity who had sought to ennoble humanity, but who find himself embroiled in such guilt that, in absence of a God, he must himself punish, perish together. Night and darkness are best.

***

I have long delayed writing this post because, despite many years’ acquaintance with this play, I am not sure I understand it, or that I will ever understand it. Reading over what I have written, I fear much of it may appear pretentious: I have touched on elements of philosophy and psychology that I am distinctly unqualified to comment upon. However, this is a work that continues to fascinate me, and I don’t think it is possible to describe how I react to this without touching on these matters. For this is all this is: not an analysis, by any means, but simply a record of how I, personally, react to this play – of what it means to me.  I think it is among the most hypnotically captivating of all works of literature that I have encountered. The dramatist still reckoned essentially to be a social critic, a dramatist of social change, peers here into some of the most obscure and secret compartments of the human mind, into some of the deepest of human concerns, and, inevitably, the play that emerges is difficult, and endlessly intricate. I doubt I will ever come to a definitive view of a work so complex and so profound. Great though Ibsen’s previous plays in this cycle had been, it does seem to me that with Rosmersholm, he moves on to a new level entirely.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Half-way though reading your post, I feel Ibsen would sympathise with this:

    “People settle for a level of despair they can tolerate and call it happiness.”
    ― Søren Kierkegaard

    Reply

    • Indeed – if everything is up for questioning, then what we mean by “happiness” needs to be questioned as well. And it may well be that there is a kind of happiness, a “true happiness” if you will, that is different from earthly comfort and contentment, and which may even disrupt or destroy earthly contentment and comfort. But if so, this needs to be defined, and argued: merely asserting it is not, I think, sufficient.

      Reply

  2. Posted by alan on November 8, 2018 at 12:50 am

    All the best aphorisms are meaningless.

    Reply

  3. Posted by alan on November 8, 2018 at 1:15 am

    Your post has got me thinking now about the way people use the word joy compared to the way they use the word happiness.
    One has joy, one is happy. One has happiness, one is joyful.
    Why is the single syllable word joy not used much compared to the three syllable happiness?
    I can almost hear the soap opera complaint “you don’t make me happy” but I have no recollection of having seen or heard the sentence “you don’t give me joy” or “you don’t make me joyful”. The word joy feels in some sense archaic or to be used to express a feeling that comes unbidden and can’t be manufactured. I’ve deliberately not looked this up.
    There’s a William Blake poem “Infant Joy” that starts:

    I have no name
    I am but two days old.—
    What shall I call thee?
    I happy am
    Joy is my name,—
    Sweet joy befall thee!

    and that only serves to underline it as being a less intended feeling, in my mind at least.

    Reply

    • I think “happiness” is generally used to suggest something close to “contentment”, while “joy” is used to suggest something close to “ecstasy”. “Happiness” is everyday, “joy” is exceptional. I think that’s how I’d see it, at any rate.

      Reply

  4. Your appraisal of the play has inspired me to reread.

    I observe in the opening pages that the behaviour of Rebecca West towards Beata is deemed beyond reproach.

    I am aware that the Biblical Rebecca supplanted the rightful suitor, sister Leah, for the hand of patriarch Jacob. “Beata” is Latin for “blessed”. “Rosmer” alludes to a Norwegian legend of a merman who lures a young woman to her death by drowning.

    Reply

    • Thank you for that. Of course, to judge from our previous discussions on Ibsen, we have very different perspectives on these plays, but it is a mark of the complexity of these works that they can allow for such divergent viewpoints.

      Reply

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